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The Dangerous Summer of 1940
For a few weeks Hitler came close to winning World War II. Then came a train of events that doomed him. An eloquent historian reminds us that however unsatisfactory our world may be today, it almost was unimaginably worse.
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
Here was a drama of forty days unequaled in the history of war for centuries, even by the brilliant victories of Napoleon. Hitler himself had a hand in designing that most astonishing of successful campaigns. He also had a hand in designing an armistice that the French would be inclined to accept.
He hoped that the United States would stay out of the war. His propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered the toning down of anti-American items in the German press and radio. When the German army marched into an empty Paris, its commanders made a courtesy call on the American ambassador, who, alone among the envoys of the Great Powers, chose to stay in the capital instead of following the torn French government during its sorry flight to the south. The Hotel Grillon, headquarters of the German military command, was across the street from the American Embassy. The German general in charge received the American military and naval attachés at ten in the morning. He offered them glasses of what he described as “the very best brandy in the Grillon.” His staff approached the American ambassador with calculated and self-conscious courtesies, to which William C. Bullitt responded with all the tact and reserve of a great envoy of classical stamp. Two months later Bullitt was back from France in his native city of Philadelphia, where, in front of Independence Hall, he made a stirring speech, calling the American people to rally to the British side against Hitler. His speech did not have much of a popular echo.
Hitler hoped that the British would think twice before going on with the war. Their chances, he said, were hopeless; and he repeated that he had no quarrel with the existence of the British Empire. He hoped that the British would make some kind of peace with him.
They didn’t. Their savior Churchill had arisen; and behind Churchill—slowly, cautiously, but deliberately—rose the massive shadow of Franklin Roosevelt. In the summer of 1940—still a year and a half before Pearl Harbor and his declaration of war against the United States—Hitler already knew that his principal enemy was Roosevelt, whom he came to hate with a fury even greater than his hatred for Churchill (and, of course, for Stalin, whom he admired in many ways till the end).
Roosevelt and Churchill knew each other. More than that, they had, for some time, put their hopes in each other. For some time Franklin Roosevelt—secretly, privately, through some of his envoys, personal friends whom he trusted—had encouraged those men in London and Paris who were convinced that Hitler had to be fought. Foremost among these was Winston Churchill. In turn, Churchill knew what Roosevelt thought of Hitler; and he knew that what Britain needed was the support of the giant United States. The two men had begun to correspond, in secret. On the day German armor appeared on the cliffs across from Dover, an American citizen, an employee of the American Embassy in London, was arrested by detectives of Scotland Yard. This young man, Tyler Kent, was a convinced and committed isolationist. He knew of that secret correspondence and had tried to inform pro-Germany sympathizers in London.
At that time—and for some dangerous weeks thereafter—Winston Churchill’s position was not yet fixed in strength. He had, after all, a mixed reputation: yes, a great patriot, but an enthusiast for losing causes. He had been flung out of power during the First World War because of his advocacy of the failed Dardanelles campaign. There were many people within his own Conservative party who distrusted him. When, during the first eight weeks of his prime ministership, he entered the House of Commons, they sat on their hands. King George VI himself had not been quite happy to hand over the reins to him on that tenth of May. John Colville, Churchill’s later faithful and admiring private secretary, reported in his diary that day that “this sudden coup of Winston and his rabble was a serious disaster and an unnecessary one. … They had weakly surrendered to a half-breed American whose main support was that of inefficient but talkative people of a similar type. …”
On the dark first day of the Dunkirk evacuation, there was a near break between Churchill and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. Halifax wanted to consider at least the possibility of some kind of a negotiation with Hitler and Mussolini. Churchill said no. “At the moment our prestige in Europe was very low. The only way we could get it back was by showing the world that Germany had not beaten us. If, after two or three months, we could show that we were still unbeaten, our prestige would return. Even if we were beaten, we should be no worse off than we should be if we were now to abandon the struggle. Let us therefore avoid being dragged down the slippery slope. …” But he himself was not so far from the edge of a slippery slope. All this looks strange and unreal now. But it is the task of the historian to .see not only what happened but also what could have happened. At the end of May and throughout June 1940, the continuation of Churchill’s brave position and leadership were still problematic. His great phrases in his great public speeches had not fallen into the void: but their meaning had yet to mature.